Chapter One – LONG TIME PASSING
LONG TIME PASSING
It’s about friendship, life, love, death, music, women, war, and everything else in between.
Some things in life are not easy! And if those things have anything to do with your friends; well, it can drive you crazy. But because you love your friends you want to please them, you want to be accommodating; you want to spare them, and you, any embarrassment. So the result is that you end up internalizing your sentiments and ideas as not to piss them off, or get you all pissed off. And, yet, at the same time, you want to let them know in simple words what you really think about their ideas; but, well, not totally.
“You fuckers are nuts,” I said.
McCall and Jackson’s idea was simple, so they kept saying. The three of us would drive from Fort Bragg, North Carolina—the army base where we were stationed—straight through to St. Louis, Missouri, and back in three days. I was not buying it. They were convinced it was the perfect plan.
That to dismiss it showed our complete failure to live up to the highest standards of true cocksmen. Furthermore, it was not worthy of our high intellect, physical prowess—our manliness. Denying to ourselves the only worthy goal in life: the hunt for the mysterious and elusive, which to McCall meant: women. Simply put, we were losers if we did not go to St. Louis.
They had been trying to convince me for a while that we could spend the coming weekend visiting St. Louis to check out the scene, and see about putting to the maximum test our God-given rights in the “hunt,” as they put it. Meaning, trying to get into the knickers of some strange girl whom we had never seen before, and who was not Frankenstein’s daughter. In addition to getting away from our normal, dreary, insipid army weekends where the excitement in the barracks was as attractive as wearing red combat boots with green shoelaces and dancing the polka.
That upon our return from such a wondrous adventure, we would have something to brag about to the other GIs who had not been daring, lucky, wise, or man enough to do what McCall and Jackson had in mind. They kept saying that a two day weekend pass, plus an extra day because Monday was a holiday, gave us plenty of time to do approximately fifteen hundred miles round trip and, according to them, have us a ball.
“We’ll be in St. Louis, what, eleven minutes—tops—and then we’ll be heading back. So when do we sleep?”
“Sleep? Why you want sleep when you’re having the time of your life? Shee-it,” McCall said, dismissively. “Come on, Hollywood, I thought you was cool,” he added, pretending to be offended by my lack of interest, my narrow view of what was really important in life, but mostly by what he called: my lack of cool. In McCall’s view, one could be forgiven for just about anything but not for lacking cool. That was the ultimate sin.
“Hollywood” was their nickname for me because I come from Los Angeles. For them, Los Angeles was Hollywood; the land of sunshine, magic and dreams. With wide boulevards crisscrossing the city, all lined with palm trees swaying gently in the wind. A paradise, overflowing with bikini-clad-long-legged-beauties, and all of the above leading you to pure enchantment and ecstasy. It never made any difference how many times I had explained to them that “Hollywood” was a state of mind.
That it was like being on drugs, except that you were not on drugs. Which, in a larger sense, made no difference, because if you were on drugs you would never know it was not Hollywood anyway. And if you were not on drugs and thought about Hollywood, you would wish the hell to be on drugs. That the Hollywood idea had nothing to do with normal people getting old, or that beauty fades, or that we all die. Or taking out the garbage at night, or getting up in the morning to go to work, fighting the traffic after dropping the kids off at school, hoping that the schools principals and teachers knew what the hell they were doing, but doubting that they did.
My arguments always fell on deaf ears. Hollywood for them was Lotus Land and that was that. We were sitting on our bunks, in the barracks, while I tried to make them see it was insane to drive hundreds of miles one way, and as soon as we got there, just turn around and drive hundreds of miles back. We had been going around the question for a while. Though I really was not totally opposed to the idea; nevertheless, it seemed like we were trying to do something that was not practical in terms of the time we had to do what they wanted to do.
“Shee-it, I know you gonna like it. I know it,” Jackson continued, totally convinced.
“How am I going to like doing all of that driving?”
“Come on, Hollywood. Where’s your sense of adventure? Of conquering unknown territories? Of dealing with strange women? Of testing yourself against all odds? I thought you cats from Hollywood were fearless. What, you chicken?” McCall asked.
“Chicken, my ass.”
Amber Karl McCall. Twenty years old. As black as night. Born on a farm in Alabama with no running water and number five in a family of six kids, three females and three males, of which one had died in childbirth before McCall was born.
“Amber? That’s for girls, man. How does a guy get a name like Amber?” I had asked him the first time I heard it.
“Well, my mama wanted a girl and Amber was a name she liked. She was so set on Amber that when I was born and she saw my big wanger, she got so sad and disappointed I wasn’t a girl, she started to cry. My daddy feeling sorry for her said, ‘OK, Amber Karl McCall, it will be.’ ”
“The ‘big wanger’ is the part that I love about the brother’s story. So touching ain’t it?” Jackson said. He busted out laughing making fun of McCall who did not look pleased.
Leno Truman Jackson, Jr. was the son of a preacher from the south side of Chicago and blacker than McCall, if such a thing was possible.
“Truman, how did you get that?”
“My old man was in the army when Truman desegregated the military. He always thought old Harry showed great courage, so he gave me Truman as a middle name,” Jackson said.
It took a long time for anybody to find out that A—McCall’s first name initial—stood for Amber. We would not have known if it had not been for Jackson, the company’s clerk, who spilled the beans. He had access to everyone’s personal records. McCall just about killed him when he told everyone about it, even though Jackson was taller than McCall and twice as strong. It took three of us to pull him off Jackson.
“Shee-it, isn’t that your name?” I asked him.
“Yeah, but the way he told everybody, he made me look like I was some kind of pussy or somethin’.”
“No, he didn’t. Come on.”
Now they were the best of friends. In the meantime, they had developed a comedy routine while taking a shower as to who had the blackest ass. It was the McCall and Jackson Blackest-Ass-Shower-Show, and the rest of us GIs laughed our heads off seeing these two guys acting silly.
After Jackson told us about McCall’s first name, he threatened everyone in the company that if he ever heard anybody making fun of McCall’s first name, he would personally take care of it. He was, after all, the company’s clerk and he had access to everyone’s records. That he would make sure to fuck up their army records so bad they would not only end up being assigned to some dump in Alaska and freeze their balls off, but the army would keep them in long after their military obligation had expired because there would be no personal information about them.
How could the army release a whole bunch of non-existent bodies to the world? If they were in the army there would be no problem, as officially they could be accounted for. If there were no records of any kind about them, they were not in the army, and therefore the army had nothing to do with them. And if it had nothing to do with them, it could not possibly give out information about someone who did not exist, who was not in the books as it were.
“I mean,” Jackson, said, “it’d be like trying to bury a ghost. The box is there, but inside it is all air. Shee-it, you’d be lucky if the army would let you be a civilian again. They would deny you was ever part of the military. Who the fuck would know anything about you? You’d be as good as dead; NWU—Not With Us—is what the army would say about your sorry ass. Even if your mama came by, identified you, and told the army you was her son, shee-it, them generals would smile and tell her they’d get back to her, which they would never do. I know what I’m talkin’ about.”
Nobody ever made any comments about McCall’s first name after that. People started calling him: A.K.
Most of us hated the army; I know I did. Our reasons were as varied as to why some people like the color purple and others hate it. Or maybe it was because the reality of being just another GI, among hundreds of GIs, instead of bringing us together tended to isolate us from one another. Thus, the object of our hate became the very symbol that was supposed to make us equal, and united.
Of course, the U.S. Army wants all soldiers to be one big family of happy warriors. With no other idea in our heads than to go out to kill the bad guys, and thereby preserve the American Way of Life! Or maybe it was that we were all young, some still in our teens, or barely out of our teens, and at that age the prevailing attitude always was: Fuck authority in general, and FTA: Fuck the Army, in particular!
Or maybe because when we got thrown together, pell-mell, into a situation where we had no control, instinctively we tended to end up attaching ourselves to those who resembled us in ways that gave us a sense of comfort and protection, in spite of our propensity to argue that we were all independent individuals, who wanted to go our separate ways. Or maybe it was because we all had met in our previous life as cockroaches, and had made a promise that in our next time around, we would get together not as cockroaches but as something else. And now we had, belatedly, discovered that in this present round we were still cockroaches.
There was not one single reason that I can recall as to why Jackson, McCall, and I ended up as friends. Our sense of humor was certainly one. That we distrusted authority was another. A further reason was, that we had been assigned to share the same barracks and our bunks were close to one another. We also worked in the same building, though we were assigned to different jobs. But there were a couple of more pertinent, practical, and specific reasons why we became friends, really.
Both of them were in a larger sense more personal than the ones I have already mentioned. The first one was that on my off-duty hours, in order to have something to do so I would not go crazy, I had joined the theater group at the base. They were looking for volunteers to help build and paint sets for the shows, and the latest was a musical show, Carnival, that I ended up directing. So I asked them if they would like to come by and help us out. McCall’s reaction had been less than enthusiastic.
“I thought you like music.” I said.
“That ain’t music. That’s just trash-shit. It ain’t got no soul.”
“What are you talking about? All music’s got soul.”
“No. See, music is jazz and the blues, motherfucker. Now, if you’s doing a show about that I’m in. Otherwise forget it.”
McCall played the trumpet and he was quite good at it. He carried the mouthpiece everywhere he went, making sounds. He was practicing his scales in that fucking mouthpiece at all times. He slept with the thing; he took a shower with it. He was never separated from it. He had it hanging around his neck along with the dog tags. It was like some kind of talisman for him. You could tell McCall was around just by listening to the sounds he was making. He drove everyone crazy.
The army wanted him to join the army band, but he had turned them down. No jazz or blues; no McCall. He was also some kind of electronic wizard, more interested in circuit boards, oscilloscopes, switches, wires, all part of his military job. He was always tinkering with electronic gear.
“If them army guys put together a jazz gig I’d join in no time flat. Besides, I don’t like playin’ marchin’ music shit. That’s for old guys.”
“OK, but could you lend us a hand with the sets and the other stuff for the show?”
“Man, the theater is full of fairies. I don’t like hanging around them fairies,” McCall said—end of the story.
“Come on,” said Jackson, who seemed more amenable to the idea. “That ain’t true.”
“What the fuck do you know about it?”
McCall’s words were dismissive with no room for any further argument.
“I’ve been in plays before and I know,” Jackson said.
“Shee-it,” McCall’s famous expression.
“Too bad; there are plenty of broads in the show,” I said.
I knew about McCall’s broad interests—no pun intended—in that department. To be around women would immediately overcome any personal reticence he might have harbored about being in an environment he considered below his manly dignity.
“Poontang? Count me in,” said McCall, his spirits up, or maybe his dick, now that he saw the situation in a different light.
“I thought you said theater’s full of fairies,” Jackson said.
“You take care of ‘em, I take care of the poontang,” McCall said, with a great cackle.
So they both came to help, which led the three of us to spend more time together. The show was a great success. We had a lot of fun doing it and even though McCall did not score with any of the women in the cast, he was grateful that he could be around them in his off-duty hours.
“Poontang does my soul good,” he said, when the show was over. “I get tired of hangin’ around swingin’ dicks all of the time. This shit ain’t so bad. I had a good time.”
But driving to St. Louis and back, all in a period of seventy-two hours, was not my idea of a good time. On top of which there was also the problem that the three-day pass did not allow us to be so far away from our base. For McCall, of course, that was just a small detail. They had volunteered me because I was one of the few guys in our unit who had a set of wheels, and I was perhaps as crazy as they were. The bastards knew that all they had to do was challenge me to do something crazy, and I was game.
Though, perhaps, having a car was probably a good reason why our friendship had flourished. I had a car and they did not. It was the: you will scratch my back I will scratch your back society. I had a 1956 Chevy Impala, convertible. Cream color with bright red stripes on the sides, white wall tires, a twin set of shiny Glass Pak exhaust pipes, and the car ran like a clock. I had driven it from California to North Carolina and it was my pride and joy.
“Cash, I don’t relish driving hundreds of miles one way and hundreds of miles the other way just to go spend a few minutes in St. Louis,” I said.
“Cash” was my nickname for McCall. There was a movie that had come out some years ago. The movie and the name of the main character in it was: Cash McCall. McCall swaggered around when everybody started calling him ‘Cash.’ It reminded me of guys who become cops. Once they strap a gun to their belts, they swagger around with their arms slightly bent away from their sides, their hands and fingers cool and lose, signaling to the world that they now have a gun and are ready to draw it at the first sign of trouble from the bad guys. Sort of like Gary Cooper in High Noon. Cash liked the nickname. It fit his personality, really.
“What, me and Jackson will take care of expenses.”
“That’s not it.”
“For one thing, I’ll be doing most of the driving and you’ll sit in the back like a fucking lordship and give me static that I drive the way an old lady fucks.”
“That’s the truth ain’t it?” Cash said. Both of them giggled like silly schoolgirls.
“The truth, my ass. I know you. Going at a hundred miles an hour ain’t fast enough for you.”
Cash’s laugh was a combination cackle, hungry hyena, and the hysterical screeching of a bird about to be swallowed by the perennial hungry cat.
“Hey, Jackson, tell this fool he’s riskin’ losin’ some serious poontang in St. Louis, shee-it.”
“OK, Jonathan, we’ll make a deal with you,” Jackson said.
“Get out of here. You and your deals. Man, you could steal someone’s socks without taking their shoes off and expect people to say ‘thank you.’ ”
I was by then wise enough to know I was dealing with a couple of con artists for whom there were no limits. It was always full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. Not that I blamed them for the madness. It was probably what got them, what got all of us, through the day.
“I’m serious; we’ll rent your car from you.”
“Oh boy, that’s a good one.”
I would rent them my car and off they would go and everybody would be cool with that. I would not put it past them to sell the car, and declare it had been stolen.
“Fifteen bucks a day, plus a full tank when you get it back.”
“That’s close to fifty and change. Where did you get that much bread?”
That was just about what we were making as a monthly salary in the army, so I was a bit suspicious.
“Been saving some.”
“So you guys have this whole thing all figured out, haven’t you?”
“Not true,” Cash said.
“Not true,” said Jackson.
“What’s the matter with your ass? Why you always so fuckin’ suspicious?” Cash asked, pretending to be offended by my attitude.
“‘Cause I know you fuckers and I ain’t trusting you.”
“Not trust us? Shee-it, there ain’t a body out there more trustworthy than me and Jackson, right Jackson?” Cash said.
“You’ve got that right, brother.”
“Yeah, the Jessie James brothers in full living color.” They both busted out laughing.
They exchanged looks. It was a signal. It was their game. When things did not go their way, they had a routine they used to shame you into doing what they wanted. I had been around these guys long enough to know their routine.
“So you a fuckin’ racist, man?” Cash asked.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I knew what was coming next. Once they got started, there was no way to stop them.
“That’s what I thought. You’s afraid them white hunkies will start whisperin’ you favor us niggers. Ain’t that a bitch?” Cash said.
“Get out of here.”
“You know Jackson,” Cash continued, “I thought my man here was cool. I really did. Now, he don’t want us ridin’ in his car ‘cause he’s afraid of the brothers. I guess we’re gonna stink up his wheels, or somethin’. Not the man I thought I knew.”
Cash pretended to be highly offended by my lack of cool.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Jackson said. “No more wheel-sit-ins allowed in his car.”
“You and your sit-ins, go stick them up your ass.”
“No can do GI,” Jackson said.
He and Cash started giggling again.
“Hey, Jackson,” Cash said, “remember that day when we thought we was gonna get mauled by them white trash, at that restaurant in town, and my man here stood up and told those KKK thugs to shove it? Man, that was somethin’, weren’t it?”
“Them days are over.”
“You’re both full of crap. I don’t know why I hang around with you. I really must be crazy, or desperate, or both.”
“You love us, white boy,” Cash said.
“I must, somethin’.”
“So, it’s a deal,” Jackson said, with the satisfaction of a gambler who has a hidden ace up his sleeve and he will use it to cheat you out of your money while claiming that he won it fair and square. And it is your fault for not knowing how to play the game, and most likely you are a real moron to think you could sit down with real pros and not risk losing your ass in the process.
“No, it ain’t no deal.”
Cash started to laugh his hyena’s laugh. He knew what the outcome was going to be. The bastard had my number all right.
This was 1964, and the sit-ins were taking place all around us. Back in 1960, four black students went into a restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat at the counter, and ordered food. They were denied service and told to leave, which they refused to do. The police came, arrested them, and threw them in jail. It made the headlines everywhere.
The idea of civil disobedience started with that simple act by those four students refusing to move. It grew by leaps and bounds. Before you knew it, thousands of black students, along with some white students, throughout the South, were participating in these sit-ins.
The civil rights movement was raging across the American South. Everywhere, in bus terminals, airports, hotels, public accommodations, and segregated restaurants, blacks were sitting down at counters and refusing to move until they were served—which never happened. Instead, the police were called in and the protestors were hauled off to jail.
Sit-ins were the new tactic to force the end of segregation in the South, and it was met with incredible violence on the part of whites. The reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was the moral driving force against the entrenched bigotry, and he was instrumental in inspiring blacks of all ages, and some whites also, to fight in a non-violent way for their civil and constitutional rights.
It was pretty ugly and depressing to see the violence perpetrated against blacks by white bigots who were bent on maintaining the status quo. The only experience that I could relate to happened in Los Angeles, where some cops and some Muslim Brothers had gotten into a shootout.
The newspaper headlines theorized that the event took place because the Muslim Brothers were all black followers of Elijah Muhammad—a self-proclaimed follower of Islam—with his own version of religion, which he called the Nation of Islam. One of their leaders, Malcolm X, accused the cops of police brutally, while the police in turn accused the Muslim Brothers of hating the white race.
Nevertheless, from my distance in California, the whole situation in the South, as I followed it in the newspapers, seemed to be happening in another planet. And since I had never directly witnessed that kind of bigotry before, it never occurred to me that a few months later, after my arrival at Fort Bragg, I would find myself involved in something that I had no experience dealing with. I had been caught in it, and it was because Cash and Jackson were both simply hungry.
We had gone into a restaurant in town to get something to eat, and sat at the counter. To this day, I am not sure whose idea it was. It seemed like it just happened—a simple human act. When you are hungry you go in, sit down at the counter, order food, they serve it, you eat it, pay for it, and you leave. People at the restaurant had refused to serve Cash and Jackson, even though we were all wearing U.S. Army uniforms. They told us they would only serve me.
I went ape shit!
The confrontation got ugly with taunting and vicious shouting from a group of whites, most of whom were about the same age as we were. What was so depressing, at least to me, was to see white girls among them literally foaming at the mouth with their vile insults hurled at the three of us. They used nasty and vulgar words that I usually associated with dockworkers and not with girls. And though the confrontation did not become physical, it came very close. Both Cash and Jackson kept pushing me back. There were a hell of a lot more of them than the three of us.
I had taken some boxing lessons in the past so I thought I could defend myself, or at least try to deck a couple of those pricks before they jumped all over us. The next thing I knew a paddy wagon, along with a jeep full of big burly redneck MPs, screeched to a halt in front of the restaurant and asked us to leave, which I refused to do. They then handcuffed us, pushed us into the wagon, and hauled us off to the base jail. I could not believe what was happening. This was the first time that I had been arrested in my life.
I had never been a witness, let alone found myself involved in such a fucked up situation. We were soldiers. U.S. citizens! Full-fledged members of the United States Army! We were all supposed to defend the country’s ideals. We had sworn to defend the constitution and die defending it if it came to that. We were all equal. We were citizens prepared to protect our American brothers and sisters. And yet here were our brothers and sisters acting like fucking animals, ready to fight us just so Cash and Jackson could not sit at the counter and be served something to eat.
And because Cash and Jackson were black, none of the lofty ideals about freedom, dignity, and equality meant a fucking thing to the people at the restaurant, and it had pissed me off to no end. Cash and Jackson had not said very much and I deeply resented them for that. It was also confusing because I had assumed they would push the confrontation to the limit. But, of course, that was exactly what you do not do in such situations. Keeping your cool was smart. I was not being smart.
In the wagon, I was fuming. “You chicken shits. You fucking losers. You would not fight those fucking pigs. I thought you guys had some balls. You ain’t worth a shit, both of you. You’re a fucking disgrace.”
They did not say anything. I hated everyone at that moment.
The MPs, just looked at me, smiled a kind of smirk that along with their silence simply meant, “Serves you right you dumb fuck for hanging around with them darkies.”
The company commander of our unit, Captain Rowe, had finally come by and gotten us out. As we were driving back to the barracks Rowe said, looking directly at me, challenging me to contradict him.
“Greene, you are a U.S. Army soldier; all of you are U.S. Army soldiers. Politics is not our concern. We’re military. We’re guests of these people, and you will obey orders and keep away from that kind of stunt. Is that understood?”
I did not answer and he got pissed. I liked Captain Rowe. He was a decent guy. But at that moment the son of a bitch was giving me a lecture that I did not need. I felt that he had let me down and I hated him for it. How in the fuck, I thought, can we be soldiers, obey orders, and keep the country safe, if racist motherfuckers were allowed to get away with such shit? The whole thing was just fucked!
“’Greene, is that understood?” He repeated, looking at me as if hoping I would challenge him. This was the kind of crap that I hated about the army. They want you to use your brains, but when you do, they are ready to knock your head off and pull rank on you.
“What the hell were you trying to prove?” he continued. “You think you can come here with your Hollywood bullshit notions—I know what they call you. You think you can just waltz in here and teach these rednecks what’s what?”
I did not answer his bullshit question and he got pissed. “Answer me, soldier. I’m talking to you.”
“No sir,” I answered.
“Did you by any chance stage this shit? I wouldn’t put it past you.”
“I’m not that smart, sir,” I answered, even though I did not want to answer. I thought the question was just a cheap shot and he knew it was a cheap shot. The prick.
Ignoring my answer, captain Rowe continued, “I don’t have to add any comments about McCall here, but you Jackson? I thought you knew better. I can see what these two idiots would do. Why did you go there in the first place?”
“We were hungry, sir,” Cash said, quietly.
There was certain finality about the way Cash sounded. It was a strength that I had not seen before, but which did not surprise me. It was quiet and powerful. The captain started to say something, but he checked himself. And for the rest of the trip back to our barracks, he did not say another thing. When we got back, the sergeant major was standing with a couple of other GIs outside the company’s office.
They saw the captain and saluted. Rowe saluted back but did not say anything. He just kept on walking into his office.
“Jackson, you, McCall and Greene, all three of you are restricted to the barracks until further notice. That’s an order,” the sergeant major said.
He was pissed. He turned around and followed the captain inside. All of the other guys looked in our direction and drifted away without making any comments.
By then my anger had been somewhat replaced by a sense of sadness and loss. I was not sure why I felt that way. I was angry more with myself for not thinking about what I was doing, but it seemed to me that to ignore what was happening at the restaurant was just too stupid. I did not think that Cash and Jackson were cowards at all. They were not. I had said it because I was pissed.
I understood that for me not being black was the difference. I wanted to understand that difference. I knew that I would never, ever, be in a position to see what they saw, felt, and had experienced in their lives. Exposed to bigotry and racism simply because of their skin color. I was not being goody-two-shoes about it. It was just that the people at the restaurant were being shit-heads, and I did not like it. In the end, it had to do more with me than the fact that Cash and Jackson were black.
As we were standing outside, I saw the faces of both Cash and Jackson. For some reason I had expected them to be pissed, but all I saw was a wise smile, kind of mocking me, in fact. At that moment, the whole thing seemed too silly, so ridiculous and childish that I started to laugh. The three of us stood there laughing.
“So you gonna take on the whole friggin’ town and fight ‘em, are you?” Jackson said. “You think you can come here and tell them rednecks what’s what? Yeah, you want to pull your Hollywood shit on them, don’t you?”
“Get off my back.”
Jackson had a very deep voice and he was now using it as if he were preaching. He stood there and preached to us. “The Sermon of the Barracks” is what I called it, later. Filled with images of hell and damnation. We were all going to hell. He was trying to save our asses and them white hunkies were not worth a shit, anyway, and I had better learn that.
It was making fun of the ridiculousness of the whole episode that was needed at that moment. He called Cash and himself, a pair of Negro pussies who could not defend themselves against the white oppressors. A couple of poor lost Negro souls in debt to me, for I had tried to come to their rescue and liberate them from bigotry, racism, and tyranny, which they had failed to appreciate.
I was the missionary, come in from the revered land of Hollywood; he pronounced it: Holy—Wood. The new Mount Olympus! Where the white gods dwelled. The way he made it sound, it was a most sacred place. A shinning place on the hill. Filled with good people, honest people, people who were as pure as fresh fallen snow.
God-like people, salt of the earth people, not racists or liars or con artists or back stabbers or scumbags, or phonies, wearing blue Suede shoes and not trying to sell you snake oil. But honorable people, bent on bringing peace and harmony to the rest of the world. People on a mission devoted to saving humankind by showing what was best in America. Keen on demonstrating to the whole world how to save poor, little, black lost souls, Americans, from them white racist motherfuckers.
On a sacred mission I was. Yeah. Involved in this most worthy quest. Preaching, but not only preaching but trying to show the gospel of love, tolerance, dignity, and understanding to these unworthy white trash cocksuckers. Cash and I were laughing our heads off and, as I glanced to one side, I saw the sergeant major looking at us through the window of his office with such a stern look that, I had grabbed Cash and Jackson and pushed them toward our barracks.
The following day, the three of us were called in by the sergeant major and got a very stern lecture: If we ever pulled another similar stunt, he would personally make sure we would spend all of our free time cleaning dozens of toilets and, in between such delightful duties, we would have to do KP—Kitchen Police—as well. And if that was not good enough to make us model soldiers and upstanding citizens, he had tons of other ideas in his head.
The sergeant major did allow me to go back into town to get my car. But, when we visited the town again, we never went back to that restaurant. In fact, we did not go to any white-owned restaurant. The army had put fear in our hearts and we knew they had all of the cards.
The trip to St. Louis was now a reality in their minds. I had no other choice but to get on with the program. They had my number all right.
“So what’s so special about St. Louis? Why do you want to go there?”
“Why not?” Cash answered.
The drive to St. Louis and back in three days meant that we would drive like bats out of hell. Not get much sleep, and with all of the carousing we were likely to do, it did not seem such a practical idea. It would probably mean that I would do most of the driving for the simple reason that I did not trust these guys to keep it at least within a reasonable speed, like maybe a hundred miles an hour. In addition, Cash could not drive because he had no license.
“Cash, you don’t even have a driver’s license, which is about as fucked as anything in life. It means me and Jackson will be doing the driving and, like I’ve said, you’ll sit in the back like a fucking lordship and make your caustic comments about our driving skills. I mean, why don’t you have a license?”
“The pigs took it away from me.”
“I ain’t tellin’ you jack.”
“Shee-it, were you hauling off moonshine, you bastard? I wouldn’t put it past you if you did.”
“Ask him how many tickets he had before they pulled his license.” Jackson said.
“OK, how many speeding tickets you got?”
Cash hesitated a moment before answering. It was almost like he was counting them in his head because he had so many of them that he had lost track. And he wanted to give me the truthful response, which, of course, I knew he would
not. His act was just another way of trying to play with my head.
“I don’t know.”
“What the hell do you mean, ‘I don’t know?’ ”
“Well, maybe just a couple.” He finally said, with a sly look.
Jackson started to laugh and Cash gave him his famous dirty look.
“A couple? Shee-it. How’s about twelve tickets?” Jackson said.
“Twelve? You’re kidding!” I said.
Jackson shook his head. Cash looked like he was about to hit him. “But that ain’t all,” Jackson continued. “He got ‘em in three months’ time.”
“Man, that’s one a week. Is that why they put you in the army? What the hell were you doing?” I asked, not that I trusted he would answer with the truth.
“Taking care of business. And I ain’t telling you shit,” Cash answered.
“You’re just a crazy sonovabitch, aren’t you?”
“Sonovabitch I ain’t; crazy, maybe.” And he started to laugh his crazy laugh.
“Let’s go to a civilized place, like Myrtle Beach, or something,” I said.
We had been to Myrtle Beach, in South Carolina, twice and on the second occasion, we had not done so badly, though in Cash’s eyes it had not been enough. After all, he had a reputation to uphold. It would not look good to the other guys if they found out that Cash had not scored heavily, as he always claimed he did. I mean, a man has to guard his cocksman reputation against all odds.
“Oh, no, no more Myrtle Beach, man, them pickings was slim.”
“Slim? There’s more poontang in Myrtle Beach than in the whole of St. Louis.”
“Greene, you’re sayin’ that because you ain’t never been to St. Louis.”
“OK, Cash, let me ask you a question: Why is it that when you talk about poontang I understand what you’re saying, but when you talk about something else, it’s hard to figure out what you’re saying? Why is that?”
“Hollywood, you’s a riot. Everybody knows what I’m sayin’, ‘cept you.”
“Jackson doesn’t understand what you’re saying half of the time.”
“Hey, Jackson, is that true?”
“Shee-it, don’t get me in the middle of your nonsense.”
“So, Hollywood, you’s comin’ or what?”
“Is that an invitation or an order?”
Cash started to laugh his victorious hyena laugh reserved for those occasions when he knew things went his way.
“Outta sight,” he yelled.
So that is how we ended up going to St. Louis, with Jackson and me taking turns doing the driving, while his lordship sat in the back reminding us that we drove the way old ladies fuck!
Cash’s brother was living in St. Louis and we went to his place. It was in the black part of town and Cash seemed to know just about everyone there. Cash’s brother lived in a big, old, but well restored house. Cash had told us that we did not have to worry about staying in a motel—his brother’s house was large enough to accommodate a dozen people with no sweat.
“What is this, a cat house?” I asked him, just to give him a hard time.
“Shee-it, it’s the ‘House of Whispers,’ ” Cash said.
“Whispers? What the fuck is that? Jackson, have you ever heard so much shit in your life?”
“Hey, I’m cool with that.”
“Yeah, you would.”
“It’s somethin’ white hunkies don’t know shit about, and you’d better not ask any more of your stupid questions,” Cash said. Subject closed.
Cash’s brother was a hood, lock, stock and barrel. Sleek as hell. You not only smelled and sensed that he was a hood; you knew he was, just by looking at him. But that was also what gave him a certain primitive charm. I thought he was the kind of guy, who would smile at you while sticking a long and deadly stiletto in your guts. He never raised his voice so you had to lean over to understand what he was saying. He never seemed in a hurry. He always listened to you with his eyes half closed, as if there was nothing more important in the world at that moment than paying attention to what you were saying. Cool and laid back.
But what was also interesting was the closeness between the two brothers. You could see that Cash had a great deal of respect for his older brother and it seemed he made it a point not to contradict him in front of other people. When I made a comment about it, Cash said their parents always insisted the younger brother had to respect the older one.
I had once asked Cash about his sisters, but he did not say much. It was almost as if he did not want to talk about them. I never insisted, but Jackson told me that one of them was born blind, and one of his brothers had died at birth before Cash was born. The blind sister and his brother’s death had been major tragedies for his family.
Then, the motley crew of thugs that surrounded Cash’s brother would have probably brought in armed police just to have a chat with him. These guys’ attitudes could not fool anybody. They swaggered and acted as if theirs was the Kingdom and they ruled it like ancient African warlords. The house was a beehive of activity of all sorts. Women, old men, young kids, even a few cops would stop by and have these meetings. Lots of people seemed to walk out of Cash’s brother’s room with happy smiles and, in many instances, clutching dollars in their hands.
“So Cash how come you’re in the army and your brother isn’t?” I asked him.
“He don’t want to.”
“Shee-it, like he can tell Uncle Sam to shove it.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“Yup, my older brother got dis-pen-sa-tion.”
“What the hell is that? Dispensation from what? From being in the military? Boy, talk about being full if it, you sure as hell are.”
“Now look here, Hollywood, just because we’s niggers don’t get the idea we don’t know how to deal with the Man.”
“Jackson, did you ever hear so much bullshit in your life?” I asked Jackson.
“The brother knows his business.”
“Man, you guys don’t make sense. I sure as hell would like to get ‘dis-pen-sa-tion,’ as Cash says. Yeah, shee-it, I wouldn’t mind getting some myself.”
The actual truth, which I later learned from Jackson, was that Cash’s brother had been born with some kind of congenital heart problem. I understood that it was something that Cash wanted to keep quiet about it. What the hell, I thought; it was none of my business.
“You ain’t smart enough to get it, Hollywood.”
“I guess, I ain’t. Anyway, Cash, how in the hell did your brother become a mobster? Does that run in the family? He doesn’t get dispensation from that, does he?”
“He gets com-pen-sa-tion.” And both Cash and Jackson busted out laughing.
I laughed with these two crazy bozos. Once they started, there was no way to stop them. I had to admit their comedy routine made life easier to deal with.
“He ain’t no mobster. He’s a business man,” Cash added.
“Right, put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
“See, that’s the problem with you. Every Negro’s a criminal and only whitey is the honest one around.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yeah, I know your kind.”
“Hey, Jackson, you’re a preacher’s son, what do you think of these guys?”
“Why are you sounding like them? You keep saying that blacks need to speak proper English and here you’re sounding like a fucking ignoramus.”
This was a sore point with him because he could not make up his mind as to why some black people, either out of being too lazy or just simply out of principle, refused to speak Standard English. Preferring instead to speak in a kind of ghetto language, which, in my view, sometimes was better than Standard English because it was more expressive, even poetic, called a spade a spade—no pun intended here—got to the heart of the matter directly, promptly, and skipped the bullshit. He was not sure about that, but he was not above using less than proper English whenever it suited his purposes. Cash used to get on his case for being two-faced about it.
“Now, look here Hollywood,” Jackson said, “I didn’t say do like I do but do like I say. That’s what my daddy always says. And it works.”
“I bet that church your father heads is probably a den of inequity. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was running a numbers racket.”
“Well, he ain’t above cutting a few corners.”
“You’re just another crook passing yourself off as a preacher’s son so you can rip people off. You fuckers are all the same, phony bastards.”
“You’re just jealous,” Cash said.
But of course, Cash and Jackson were not crooks or dishonest or phony bastards, and I was not jealous. They were, we all were, all of us black and white, operating in a system that made us all outlaws. That taught us from day one that cutting a few corners against the powers that be, in order to survive, was the only choice we had. And speaking in other than so called Standard English was probably better in many instances.
After spending a long weekend that had started and never seemed to end, where we probably got about a half hour of shuteye time—tops—we were driving back from St. Louis. With the top down just enjoying the scenery. The wind rushing past us making noise like some demented monster while hearing no comments about my driving skills from Cash, who was sort of snoozing in the back.
We were keeping pretty much to ourselves. Hundreds of miles of road teeming with big, heavy-ass, trucks and me weaving in and out of such traffic. The trip had not been so bad after all. Better than sitting in the barracks and trying to avoid some prissy ass sergeant coming in and forcing you to go on KP duty, because everybody else had been smart enough to get out while the going was good.
“Shee-it, you know what, I think I’ll ask Andy the next show we do should be The Diary of Anne Frank,” I said, to no one in particular.
“Another show about poontang,” Cash piped in.
“Man, I thought you were sleeping.”
“Why would you want to do that?” said Jackson. Actually, he kind of shouted because of the noise of the wind.
“You think them military guys would allow you to do a show like Anne Frank in an army base, right smack in the middle of KKK country? You’re crazier than I thought.”
“OK, who in the fuck is this bitch?” Cash asked, shouting also.
“Whatever. Who the fuck is she? Does she put out?”
A female’s name for Cash, even if he knew nothing of the woman in question, was enough for him to start thinking with his dick.
“You fucking ignoramus, worthless piece of shit,” I said. “I ought to smack you around your ears and dump your ass off here so you can walk back. You never heard who Anne Frank was. You’re just a dumb asshole, that’s what you are.”
“At least, I’m not a dumb, black, asshole, motherfucker, pimp, son of a whore, going to hell, which is what you call me all the time.”
“Well, excuse me for forgetting my manners, Mr. dumb, black, asshole, motherfucker, pimp, son of a whore, going to hell.”
“Shut up, both of you,” Jackson said. “All right, Hollywood, why do you want to do this play?”
“Are you crazy?”
“No, I don’t see why doing this play makes me crazy.”
“They won’t let you do it. I’m telling you. You’re asking for trouble.”
“OK, you pricks, will someone tell me what this shit is all about?” Cash said.
“It was this girl in Germany—” Jackson started to say.
“Holland,” I said.
“Yeah, Holland, anyway she was killed by the Nazis and—”
“What did you call the place?” Cash interrupted.
“Holland,” I said.
“I’ve heard of the place. They’ve got them windmills.”
“Well, I’ll be go to hell. You ain’t as stupid as I thought.”
“Fuck you, Hollywood.”
“Thank you, Mr. McCall.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Greene.”
We had developed a routine, and nobody knew where it came from, that whenever one of us said, “fuck you” the others were obliged to say “thank you” in response.
“OK, one more time, why do you want to do this?” Jackson asked.
“Why not? You’ve got something against Jews, you bigot motherfucker.”
“Shee-it, some of my best friends are Jews.”
“Yeah, they all look alike just like we do,” Cash said, and we all busted out laughing.
Then Jackson turned on the radio and it was playing the song about Kansas City, about Kansas City having the craziest way of loving.
“Man, we should go to Kansas City next,” Cash said.
“On a three day pass?”
“Cash, you’re fucking nuts.”
“They’ve got the prettiest little women,” Cash said. End of argument.
“When it comes to poontang,” Jackson said, “Cash’s the man to see.”
“Shee-it, I know some people there.”
“What? You’ve got more gangster relatives there, too?”
Cash gave me one of his famous dirty looks and, as the radio blared on, we sang the song as loud as we could, at the top of our lungs. And the sun was shining. Things were good. We were all fucking innocent, pure, and there were no differences between people because it made better sense. And life was just a bowl of cherries and we were going to get some.
“I’m getting hungry,” Cash said.
He was always hungry. He ate like there was no tomorrow and for two people, literally. He ate everything that was put on his plate. And his plate was always clean when he finished. Skinny as a rail. I always kidded him that if he turned sideways nobody would find him, and he had better put some metal weight in his shoes; otherwise, the wind would lift him up and blow him away.
“No, you ain’t,” I told him, about getting hungry.
We were getting near Nashville.
“OK, “Jackson said, “Nashville is big. We’ll find us a fine Negro greasy spoon joint, and we’ll get us something to eat there. We don’t want no sit-in incidents, right Hollywood?”
“Thank you, Mr. Greene.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Jackson.”
“You know what I like about this country?” Cash shouted and he stood in the back of the car.
“What?” I shouted.
Cash shouted at the top of his lungs and the driver of a heavy ass truck we were now passing saw Cash standing, and the trucker blew his horn. We busted out laughing.
Yeah, life was fine and poontang was fine, and Cash, Jackson and me we were fine. And the sun along with the wind hitting you on the face was mighty fine. And if people did not have a sense of humor about life in general, or sit-ins in particular; well, fuck them!
“Yeah, I’ll do the Diary of Anne Frank play just to piss off the local KKK. And I’ll even go and find me a black girl and cast her as Anne Frank, that’ll teach ‘em a lesson.”
“Yeah, Hollywood, that’s the ticket,” Cash said, approvingly.
“Hollywood, the only lesson is the one you’re going to get from the powers that be when they cut your balls off. But I got to hand it to you, you’re just a dumb motherfucker who thinks he can change the world all by his lonesome,” Jackson said.
“He’s a dumb motherfucker, that’s for sure,” Cash seconded.
“Well, boys, thank you for them kind compliments.”
We had no problem finding a Negro joint, as Jackson put it, to get us something to eat once we got into Nashville, and no sit-in dramas were necessary.
The girls back in St. Louis had been fine looking. And Cash that crazy bastard did have a patter that seemed to impress those black beauties. In no time, he had them laughing and carrying on eager to do his bidding, as if he had promised to make them all beauty queens.
“It was more like you appealed to their mothering instincts that made them act, as if they were dealing with a child, shee-it,” I said.
“Greene, you dirty son of a bitch. How can you say that? A child don’t have a wanger as big as mine,” he protested.
“What are you getting so sore about?”
“Because you’re always giving me shit.”
“Well, if you stop acting like a child, maybe I wouldn’t get on your case. Besides, you deserve it.”
“Deserve it? My ass.”
Jackson laughed and he and I exchanged high fives. We always liked to get on Cash’s case especially because he thought of himself as the supreme cocksman—bar none. It was one aspect of his territorial personality.
The girls made me think of ancient Nubian princesses. Tall, regal, perfect teeth, big asses, swaying and swishing to and fro probably to ancient rhythms in their heads that only they heard and understood. While we guys were all hungry and our tongues were hanging out, and it was everyman for himself.
“Yeah, time to get me some cock,” Cash had said.
“What are you talking about? Cock? Are you some kind of pervert or something? Cock’s is guys.”
“Jackson, tell whitey here he don’t know shit.”
“You never heard that expression?”
“I thought you was from Hollywood?”
“Shee-it, cock’s guys.”
“No, it ain’t. Cock in this part of the world is poontang.”
“Never heard of it.”
“For once, my man here admits he don’t know shit, ah Jackson. Maybe we’ll teach him somethin’.”
As we were coming up to an intersection, we saw a group of girls waiting for the light to change and cross the street. I accelerated to beat the red light. The next thing I knew, there was Cash standing in the back of the car waiving at the girls, and yelling at me in his high screeching, nasal, whiny voice.
“Wilrounmafuk, wilrounmafuk, wilrounmafuk—”
“What’s he saying,” I asked Jackson, who was laughing his head off.
“Don’t you understand what he’s saying?”
“No. What does he want?”
“What do you think he wants when he sees poontang?”
Jackson gave me a look that pretty much said I was just too stupid not to understand what Cash was shouting about.
“Wilrounmafuk, wilrounmafuk, wilrounmafuk.”
“Why in the hell does he talk his Negro shit now?”
“Wilrounmafuk, wilrounmafuk, wilrounmafuk.”
“He wants you to make a U-turn, and he’s calling you a motherfucker,” Jackson said slowly, as if teaching a young child how to be polite to his elders.
“Man, why can’t he speak English?”
I slammed on the brakes and Cash almost flew out of the car. I made a fast U-turn and raced back to the intersection but, as luck would have it, just as we got there the light changed against us, and a police cruiser pulled up to the intersection going in the opposite direction.
“Go through you motherfucker, go through,” Cash said, shouting, suddenly finding his normal voice and normal English.
“We’ve got company, you dumb fuck.”
“Sonovabitch. The fuzz just got here. Sonovabitch,” Jackson said.
“Fuck the fuzz,” Cash said.
“Are you crazy? We get busted here and there ain’t no captain Rowe to bail us out. We’ll spend the rest of our lives in a chain gang. Besides, in case you conveniently forgot, we’re not supposed to be this far away from the base.”
And it was true. Our three-day pass did not allow us to be hundreds of miles from Fort Bragg. We all knew it, but we did not care. Fuck, we were going to live forever. What would they do to us? Draft us into the army?
Two big burly white cops were inside the car eyeing us. Cash sat down. The light changed. I moved up across the intersection slowly. As the police went by, Jackson waved at them while the cops gave us a hard, cold stare. Cash sat in the back moaning and groaning like his life was oozing out of him.
“Hollywood, you let ‘em pigs steal my poontang, you yellow, dirty, rotten, piece of dog shit, fuck bastard, you’s lower than a snake. I’m gonna hold it against your white ass that you kept me from my beauties. Dog Breath! I ain’t never gonna forgive you. And you, Jackson?”
“Yeah, the man failed the test.”
“Fuck you both.”
“Thank you, Mr. Greene.” They answered in unison.
“You’re welcome Mr. McCall and Mr. Jackson.”
“Go around the block,” Jackson said.
“Maybe we can catch them on the other side.”
So I drove around the block and back to the intersection, but the girls had disappeared. We could not see them anywhere. Cash was pretending to be so disappointed, and continued with his moaning while Jackson and I laughed our heads off.
Army life for us was a pain in the ass and good at the same time. It seems weird to be saying that because Vietnam loomed inexorably larger than poontang over our personal destinies, and all of us were afraid to admit it. We knew that it was only a matter of time and we would all be shipped over there, but we kept it under wraps. No sense in making things more difficult than they were. Cash had already made up his mind that he was going to stay in the army and be a lifer.
“I thought you wanted to go to New York and be another Miles Davis,” I said.
“Shee-it. Well, actually, me and Davis wouldn’t get along. New York, or Chicago, or, name it, it just wouldn’t be big enough for both of us. Come to think of it, I’ve got me some better licks than he does. It wouldn’t be fair to him.” And Cash busted out laughing.
“No, I guess it wouldn’t. I feel sorry for Davis already,” Jackson said.
And Jackson and I laughed. I did not know much about music, and certainly much less about jazz or trumpet playing. But I had heard Cash play and there was no doubt he had some amazing chops. When he was on, it was something else. It was such a pleasure to watch him play, and to hear what he was playing at a given moment was to see Cash transported into another world. Not the crazy Cash we knew, but someone with lots of musical sensibilities and talent. It did not take much to come to appreciate his musical chops. Of course, neither Jackson nor I was going to tell Cash that. He would be unbearable to live with.
Jackson was not sure what he wanted to do with his life after the army, as he hated the idea that his old man was after him to one day take over the congregation. But for that he needed to go to bible school, get some serious studies done, and he was not keen on doing either.
As for me, I had no idea what I wanted to do.
“Stay in the army,” Cash said.
“Are you crazy?”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“I’m not a moron, that’s what.”
“Don’t know about that. Jury’s still out.”
“Only morons and rednecks stay in the army.”
“Greene, that ain’t true.”
“What has this man’s army ever done for you? Except give you grief and have morons tell you what to do: when to go hit the sack, when to wake up, when to take a dump, how to wipe your ass, pull KP duty when you don’t want to, how to dress, shine your shoes, march everywhere you go, clean up the shitter for a hundred other guys, stand in line forever, send you out to get your ass killed, all for the grand total of less than sixty bucks a month, plus three hots a day and a cot. No, thanks.”
“Hey, Jackson, do you like the army?” Cash asked.
“I don’t know. It really ain’t so bad.”
“What’s the matter with you guys? The only thing this fucking army does is to teach you how to kill people,” I said.
“Shee-it, don’t need no army to know how to kill some motherfucker who’s givin’ me grief,” Cash said.
“Hey, Cash, did you ever kill a guy back in them days, you know, when you was a nice and innocent young boy?”
“I ain’t telling nobody.”
“And you Jackson?”
“In Chi City, we do it with class. You hire one of them Polacks, pay them a couple of bucks, and that’s that.”
“Just pay some guys a few bucks and that’s it?”
“Last time I checked.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“OK, have it your way.”
“Hey, Cash, what about your brother?”
“What about him?”
“Do you think he’s ever bumped off anybody?”
“I know he has.”
“Are you serious?”
“Hey, some asshole tried to double cross him on a deal that involved some money and some pussy, and he told me he killed the nigger.”
“Yeah, your brother looks like a regular thug.”
“Now, don’t get cute insulting my flesh and blood. You keep that up and I’ll tell him to come by and whip your white ass silly.”
“He liked me, man. I liked him, too.”
“That weren’t the only body you liked.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t play your innocent shit with me, Hollywood. I saw you and Sabrina gettin’ cozy.”
Sabrina was a black beauty that for some strange reason had taken a shine to me as soon as we got there. I could see it and to be perfectly honest I was flattered by it. I had never been around black women before, certainly not in the sense that I was now experiencing, and the whole thing seemed filled with exotic and mysterious possibilities. Needless to say, I did not have much trouble getting behind the program. I was not shy about it that is for sure, which was why Cash had made his comment.
“Man, can a body talk to a girl and not have the world think that somethin’ is going on?”
“Talk? You called talkin’ when you got a boner fric-tio-na-li-zin’ it against her, puttin’ your hands on her ass with the music nice and soft, while you’s dreamin’ of things to come and stickin’ your wet tongue in her ear whisperin’ sweet nothings. Shee-it. Did you promise to make her a movie star, in Holy—Wood?” And Cash cackled.
“We were just shooting the breeze.”
“Shootin’ the breeze,” Jackson said, with a cackle of his own. “You were plannin’ on shootin’ somethin’, that’s for sure.”
“I like them Hollywood types,” Cash said. “They come into town like fuckin’ U. S. Marshals, put their hands up a girl’s ass and they’s just ‘shootin’ the breeze’, yes, sir, just ‘shootin’ the breeze,’ the man says.”
“Shee-it. She told me stories about you.”
I knew this would get Cash, who was constantly elevating himself as the ultimate cocksman. He valued that reputation as if he were some kind of mafia don. He was willing to do and say anything to defend it.
“What’d she say?”
“I ain’t telling you.”
“She told you jack. I know your game.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“She’s a mighty fine mama. Foxy as hell and a looker, too. Tried myself a couple of times and she turned me down flat. Not interested a-tall. Never seen her wastin’ her time with some white hunky, but I guess there’s always the first time.”
“Shee-it, the better man won.”
“Better man? My ass. She felt sorry for your white ass—charity work that’s all she was doin’,” and Cash busted out laughing.
Sabrina was not in the Salvation Army, that’s for sure. And charity work was not exactly what she and I had engaged in. But I figured no sense in getting Cash to rib me more than necessary.
“So you and Sabrina had a meetin’, did you?” Jackson asked, me giving me his smart aleck smirk.
“Man, we just talked.”
“Isn’t that what I’ve just said?”
“Shee-it, the way you said it sound it’s as if we were committing a crime or something.”
“Oh, you were committin’ somethin’, that’s for sure. I’d say you were penetratin’ her perimeter, what you’d think Cash?”
“No question about it,” and they both cackled at my expense seeing that I had no way of getting them to shut up. I knew it would be useless. With these guys, once they had you on the run no quarter was given.
“And you were gone for a while’ Jackson continued. “In my book, a long time is very long to be havin’ a con-ver-sa-tion with a foxy black woman, shee-it.”
He stretched the words like he was holding a musical note that would never end.
“Hey, Hollywood, did her pussy Negro hair scratch you some?” Cash asked me.
“You’re just a sick piece of shit.” I answered.
“Yeah, Mr. Greene, had himself some black poontang and, if my hunch is correct, he’s gonna be wantin’ seconds, what’d you think Jackson?”
“I concur with that.”
“Concur, my ass, you bastards. You just want to give me crap.”
“Ebony and Ivory,” Jackson said.
“You know, Jackson,” Cash said, “we should ask my man here to give us a blow-by-blow,” and he started to laugh at his own words. “As I was sayin’, we ought to have a blow-by-blow de-briefin’ from Mr. Greene as to how the situation de-vel-oped? Shee-it, I’d figured he was getting’ into somethin’—I mean that’s a long time to just be shoo-t-in’ the breeze. I bet you she taught our boy here a couple of tricks he’ll remember the rest of his livin’ days. Yes, sir.” Cash was laughing his hyena’s laugh.
“Come on, Hollywood, own up to it. Sabrina must have been somethin’ else,” Jackson said, with a cackle of his own. “You know what?” Jackson continued.
“What?” Cash answered.
“I’d say we should make Greene an honorary brother. Shee-it, he’s developin’ a taste for mighty fine, foxy, black poontang. Yes, sir, shee-it.”
“I’d be careful, Hollywood, once you go black you never come back,” Cash said.
And we all laughed, because to pretend that we could keep secrets from each other about anything was as practical as trying to drink soup with your toes.
As we put more miles on the road, the landscape sameness became interminable. St. Louis now was just another image, a blurred memory, a geographical situation that had no more significance than waiting for a bus at some street corner or for the light to change so you could cross the street.
I thought these two crazy bastards were the only people I cared about in the world. The poontang was mighty fine and the hope for something, anything, that would help us get through the night to deal in the morning with the madness in our lives and of the world around us, was what kept us going from day to day. Until the bell rang and the hooded figure with the reaper in his hands showed up to tell us our time was up.
“Hey, what you guys think of Wilson’s old lady?”
“Why?” Cash asked.
“I think she’s just a nice kid,” Jackson said.
“She ain’t no poontang,” Cash said.
“What are you talking about?” What’s the difference?” I asked just to give him a hard time because he had his theories about women and poontang.
“Hollywood, if you don’t know it, you’s fucked. She ain’t no poontang.”
He was serious. Cash always made such a distinction. In his eyes, his own sisters were not poontang. He had once explained to me that there were women you married, like the woman his father married who became his mother. And there were those he referred to as poontang. This duality of sentiments about women is something we men have to wrestle with in our lives. We want poontang, but our mothers are not poontang, and yet we lust after women.
“So when’s a woman not poontang?”
“When you love and marry her,” Cash said. End of the story.
“Like that lucky Wilson says: ‘five feet of heaven in a ponytail!’ ” Jackson said.
“Yeah, don’t make ‘em like that no more,” Cash said.
Wilson was a kid from Appalachia. Innocent, all smiles, tall, toothy, lanky, and tough as nails. With deep blue eyes that seemed to look at the world with a benign attitude, as if only he knew what was what. He loved the military and his whole family had been in the military since time immemorial. He knew more about military history than a whole encyclopedia. Twenty-two years old, he had a grave sense about him, and with his slow drawl he never seemed in a great hurry. But whenever we needed muscle Wilson was there. He was as strong as an ox.
Because he was married, he was allowed to live off post and we used to go out to his place and hang around on weekends. He loved cars. He had an old 1948 Ford coupe and was always tinkering with the thing. That is how he and I connected. He liked my Chevy. He was always telling me how I should hot rod the thing so it could run not only better but faster.
“See, Jonathan, I like your Impala, but I much prefer Fords. Chevy’s fine cars and all that but nothing can beat a good Ford on any day.”
“You own stock in the company or something?”
“No, all of my family has always been partial to Fords, that’s all.”
We were both underneath his car that day, as he was checking the crankshaft and I had helped him put the car high on bricks, while he tinkered under it. I had not met his wife and that Saturday when I came to their place, for the first time, she was out visiting a neighbor. The next thing I knew, I was looking up at a pair of fine looking well-tanned legs and a sweet voice asking us if we wanted some cold lemonade.
“Yeah, honey, would you get us some. Emily, this is Jonathan.”
Emily was lovely and as innocent as he was. And she was a beauty! A face with high cheekbones that made me think of apple cheeks. Emily was golden blonde with bright, green dancing eyes that always gave the impression that what they saw was far more amusing than what others saw. The way she acted seemed she held a secret, and everyone wanted to find out what it was because we all wanted to share in the secret.
On that day, she was wearing shorts and she looked as delicious as only a beautiful girl can look. She had the fine features of a typical All-American girl. Perfect teeth, lovely complexion, a figure to kill, and the nicest smile, along with a winning personality—there should be a law against girls owning such great looks.
While Wilson spoke slowly, deliberately, Emily was exactly the opposite. She had been to a teacher’s college and was now ready to start working at the base as a kindergarten teacher. Wilson was very proud of her. He never denied she was the one in the family who had gotten a better education than he had.
It was interesting to see how respectful and generous Cash and Jackson were with her. In fact, all of us acted toward Emily in a kind of protective way. She was very different, not vulgar or crass but natural, without pretensions. This was in sharp contrast to the girls at the restaurant where Cash, Jackson, and I had attempted to get something to eat. Neither Wilson nor Emily seemed to be conscious that Cash and Jackson were black, even though she and Wilson came from backcountry that for ages has been and continues to be racist.
I never saw anything indicating Emily or Wilson were uncomfortable around Cash or Jackson. That we were all jealous of Wilson’s good fortune in having Emily with him goes without saying. But it was not really jealousy, because deep in our hearts we all longingly wished to be that lucky—have a good woman love us. We knew Wilson deserved to have such a beautiful girl in love with him. Cash and Jackson had sort of adopted her, and she reciprocated that sentiment. She was like their kid sister and they were her big brothers, which in a way explained why Cash did not consider Emily as poontang.
She could make them laugh, and Emily, Wilson, and Cash would end up talking about farming—raising hogs, rabbits, chickens, and how to take care of horses, and milking the cows.
“Jonathan,” she asked me one day, “did you ever milk a cow?”
Cash and Jackson busted out laughing.
“The only cow he’s ever milked ain’t the four legged kind,” Cash said.
“Now, Cash, a nice boy like you saying things like that,” she said, in that sweet voice of hers along with her lovely smile.
“No, Emily, I never had the pleasure,” I said.
“It’s easy, right, Homer?” That was Wilson’s first name.
Cash, Jackson and I used to wonder how a guy with a name like Homer ended up with such a beautiful girl.
“Names don’t mean nothin’,” Cash had said.
“Yeah, you should know all about that,” I responded.
He gave me a dirty look but said nothing.
There were two guys in our company of horny GIs who were the envy of everyone because they both had fine looking women who loved them. One was Wilson and the other was Yoshio Hino, an American kid, who had lived most of his life in the prefecture of Nagasaki, in Japan. He had recently returned to America and had been drafted while in his second year of college in the U.S. He did not want to ask for a student deferment, as so many other people had done to keep from being drafted into the army.
Yoshi was the sweetest, most kind guy. Wilson was the strongest, and Yoshi was the smartest kid around. And, again, it was Jackson who told us. He had seen Yoshi’s army test results and he said that the scores were off the scale. The army wanted Yoshi to apply to Officers Candidate School, but he turned it down. He was an army medic. He just wanted to be a simple soldier.
“Why do you suppose he wants to come back and live in America after what we did to his grandparents?” Jackson asked me one day.
Yoshi’s grandparents had been incinerated by a U.S. atomic bomb named Fat Man, back in Nagasaki.
“Well, they attacked us first,” I replied.
“True, true. Still—”
“I know why,” Cash jumped in.
“All right, Mr. Smarty Pants, why?”
“He wants to get himself some round-eye poontang, that’s why,” and he let out his crazy laugh.
“Hey, I understand Japanese women are not made the same way American women are,” Jackson said, eyeing Cash whom he knew would take the bait.
“No shit,” Cash said, sitting up on his bunk where he had been lazily leafing through a radio manual while blowing softly on the mouthpiece.
“How they’re different? I mean pussy is pussy, right?”
“I’m telling you, it ain’t the same,” Jackson said.
Cash was all ears now. You could see that the whole idea was working its way through his brain. He was trying to picture what Jackson has just said and having a tough time dealing with whatever images his sex-crazed mind was bringing forth. He wanted to get around the notion of Japanese women being different, but his imagination was just not helping him out. Jackson looked at me and winked.
“Get out of here. You’re full of shit,” Cash said.
“Ask Yoshi,” Jackson said.
“Shee-it, I ain’t gonna ask him. He’ll think I’m some dumb motherfucker or somethin’.”
It was a couple of days later, while we were sitting in the mess hall having dinner, that Cash got around to bringing up the subject.
“Hey Jackson, you know what you said the other day about Japanese poontang not the same as American poontang?”
It was obvious that the subject had been on his mind for a while.
“Yeah, what about it?”
“OK, I mean, how is it different?”
“I ain’t gonna tell you. Ask Yoshi. He’ll tell you.”
“Shee-it. Hey, Hollywood, you’re the man of the world, is that true?”
“Well, what Jackson’s sayin’ about Japanese poontang being different than American?”
“If Jackson says so, he’s a preacher’s son, he ain’t no liar.”
“You ever tried it?”
“Well, yes, but it was dark and I was drunk so I couldn’t really tell the difference.”
Cash was not sure if he should believe me because he did not really know, and he also knew that neither Jackson nor I would tell him anything. On the contrary, we would refuse to say anything just to be ornery. Therefore, the only thing he had left was to either find things out for himself or accept what we were saying.
He really did not have references about this aspect of life. The simple fact of the matter was he could not afford to appear ignorant, especially when it came to women. Jackson and I busted out laughing and Cash looked as if he had he been able to do so, would have shown absolutely no mercy as he was slowly strangling us.
“You son of a bitch,” Cash said.
“Man, stop this shit, and ask Yoshi.” Jackson said.
Cash looked at us for a while, trying to make up his mind about asking Yoshi and risk looking like a fool. Or not asking him simply assuming what Jackson said was true, taking it to the bank, and still end up looking like a fool. Either way, it was a losing proposition for him.
“Come on, Hollywood. Level with me. Is Jackson telling it like it is, or he’s just a jive-ass nigger?”
“Look, I already told you my memory is kind of fogged up. I think Jackson’s got the goods on this one. So you’d better accept it or else ask Yoshi.”
“What am I gonna say? ‘Excuse me, Yosh, see, it’s like this. Is your girl Tamiko, well, I mean, like she is different from American women, you know what I’m sayin, right?’ Shee-it, I don’t want to sound like an idiot.”
If it were true about Japanese women, his own macho credibility would go down the toilet, and he did not relish appearing to be so ignorant, especially with the kind of reputation he had tried so hard to create among all of us. On the other hand, if it was not true, then Yoshi would most likely look at him and for sure think that Cash was a fucking idiot. Either way he was screwed!
Jackson and I busted out laughing, and Cash did not like it one bit.
“You pricks, it ain’t true.”
“Shee-it, like all of a sudden you’ve been gettin’ plenty of Japanese poontang and you’re now an expert. Get out of here,” Jackson said.
“You guys make me sick,” Cash said, got up and walked away from us, while Jackson and I were trying like hell to keep from falling to the floor while laughing our asses silly.
A few days later, we saw Cash and Yoshi in what appeared to be a deep and intimate discussion. Yoshi kept nodding his head and had a serious look on his face, while Cash seemed to be doing all of the talking. Cash finally walked over to us and had a big shit-eating grin on his face.
“So what did Yoshi say?” Jackson asked.
“I ain’t tellin’ you. He told me and it’s better than you two can possible imagine, you guys don’t know jack.”
“Come on, what did he say?”
“I ain’t gonna tell you. Yosh said to keep it to myself and I intend to.”
“So you’re holding out on us, your buddies,” I said, pretending to be aghast at his behavior.
“So it’s better than we imagined, ah, Cash?” Jackson asked.
“You pricks don’t know shit. I know what’s what and I swore to Yosh never to tell you. So you’s fucked, both of you.” Cash said, ostensibly getting a kick out of trying to even the score.
The Zen man is what Cash used to call Yoshi, and it was funny because Yoshi was a Presbyterian; one of the few who existed in Japan. His grandparents had been hosts to some American missionary and they had converted. The whole thing was crazy, ironic, and tragic in that his family had been pro-American all along, only to have the grandparents incinerated by the atomic bomb the U.S. military had dropped on their heads.
Yoshi and I used to play chess and he would checkmate me in no time. I prided myself on being a decent chess player, but he trashed my ass silly every time. It was never a contest, but a whole massacre. I never won a game against him. Never!
“Jonathan, come on, this is a game of patience, of tactics, and not one of trying to bulldoze your way through like some demented man.”
“Well, that’s fine for you to say. Patience is certainly not one of my virtues.”
Yoshi’s father was a doctor, who was in the U.S. doing post-doctorate medical studies when the war with Japan broke out. The U.S. government had not allowed him to go back to Japan, and instead he was sent to Manzanar, an intern camp, in California, where thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry had been interned—one of those ugly chapters in our American history—as they were all considered a national security risk to the U.S. government.
At the camp, he met Yoshi’s mother and eventually through some bureaucratic miracle, they had received permission to get married. Yosh was born at the camp. His father had worked in the camp, as a doctor for the duration of the war. After it was over, he had taken the family back to Japan where Yoshi grew up. Then his father decided to move back to the U.S.
Yoshi was engaged to a Japanese girl back in Japan, an arrangement made through his family connections. He had met her only once. Now his fiancée was coming to visit him and everyone was curious about this lovely Japanese beauty. He showed us a photo of her: A butterfly. Our male jealousy about Wilson and Yoshi because of the women they had managed to snare was understood but never really aired openly, and certainly never in an offensive way. Somehow, we all understood that to make any sexist comment was too vulgar.
Again, perhaps jealousy is the wrong word to use because what we questioned was our lousy luck in that we wanted to have the same luck when it came to lovely women. But it did not happen. So the only thing we could do was complain about it. Of course, that did not keep us from ribbing them about those very same women who were leading them by the nose. PW, which stood for Pussy Whipped, is what Cash use to call it.
The day finally came when Yoshi’s fiancée arrived. She had come all the way from Japan and Yoshi’s mother had accompanied the girl from California to North Carolina. We guys had all decided we would not be on our best behavior for her. We warned Yoshi that he could not count on us being polite to his girl.
She was going to find out about the true American way of life: foul-mouthed, indifferent, crass. We were going to gross her out like there was no tomorrow. Yoshi laughed and said that it would not make any difference to him or Tamiko. That, in fact, she was looking forward to meeting us.
Late that afternoon, we were all hanging around the basketball court when Yoshi brought Tamiko to meet us. We saw this lovely girl, like out of some dream, floating on air, as she got out of the taxi. She was wearing an exquisite kimono that seemed incongruous in such a setting. Her steps were short and dainty. The whole thing had an air of delicacy—mysterious, magical, and incredibly ephemeral.
We were all sweaty and frazzled from a fast and tough game when she arrived.
All of a sudden, our super-macho nonsense went out the window and we found ourselves not only being polite to this total stranger, but also regretting to no end that we looked like shit and probably smelled like it, too.
She knew everyone’s name and even our nicknames. Yoshi, the bastard, had told her what we were planning on doing and had cut us off at the pass. It is very hard to be a dummy and act like one when you are shaking the hand of a lovely girl with a great smile and who is polite as all get out.
As he introduced her to us, she bowed and, bigger than shit, all of us bowed back. It was funny.
“Jonathan, they call you ‘Hollywood.’ Why? Are you a movie star?”
Everyone laughed because we thought she had grand sense of humor.
“No, Tamiko, it’s just a silly nickname, that’s all.”
“Cash,” she said, “I understand you come from a large family and have lived on a farm all of your life and know about chickens, and cows, and other things.” Her soft voice and accent were charming and as mysterious as the place where she came from.
“Yes, ma’am—I mean, Tamiko.”
The son of a bitch had suddenly found his good manners! The polite way he acted toward Tamiko would have made his mother happy and very proud.
Tamiko covered her mouth as she laughed. Her gesture was so incredibly natural that it seemed like we all should have been doing the same thing. Yoshi wanted to take Tamiko and his mother to a typical Southern soul-food restaurant.
Cash, Jackson and I rushed back into the barracks and took one of the quickest showers ever, and got dressed. Then, we all piled up in my car, drove by and picked up Yoshi’s mother at the motel. We went into town to a black restaurant and laughed our heads off when we saw Tamiko and Yoshi’s mother delicately negotiating greasy ribs with their fingers.
After the meal, we drove Yoshi, Tamiko, and Yoshi’s mother back to their motel, and Cash, Jackson and I drove back to the base.
“So the Zen man’s getting’ some tonight,” Cash said.
“With the mother around, it ain’t gonna happen,” Jackson said.
“Hey, did you know that the Japanese sleep on them rice mattresses?” Cash said.
“How do you know that?”
“He told me.”
“Shee-it, that must be hard on your back,” Jackson said.
“Yosh said it’s all a matter of getting used to it. He don’t like sleeping on army bunks; too soft for his ass.”
“I wonder what it would be like making love to someone like Tamiko,” Jackson said, wistfully.
“I thought you knew all about Japanese women, you fucking liar,” Cash said.
“I never claimed to have slept with such beauties; I just simply told you that they’re different.”
“Shee-it, there ain’t no difference. Yosh told me. He said that you guys were full of it.”
“And you believe him?”
“Man, he knows.”
“He told you that just to get you off his back.”
“Well, between you two and Yosh, I prefer what the Zen man says ‘cause he knows.”
“Yoshi don’t know shit. I bet you he’s still a virgin,” Jackson said.
We all busted out laughing and I imagined old Yosh, horny as hell, trying to get Tamiko’s kimono off and having a hard time. You cannot rip such a dress off a girl in a hurry. Sex in such circumstances was not so simple when you thought about it. Maybe it was as complex as their tea ceremony, with all of their bowing, delicate choreography, and manners. I have to ask Yoshi about it, I thought. Maybe that was why the Japanese had to practice patience.
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